Friday, January 23, 2009

God Bless The Old Fashioned

No, not the drink made with brandy or whiskey, but the place on the square in Madison. For the next, honestly, I don't know how long, The Old Fashioned has on tap every brewery available in the state of Wisconsin. How f'ing awesome is that? Calumet - not usually available outside of a 30 mile radius of Chilton? Check. In fact, as of Tuesday night, they had already run out of Calumet's brown ale and only had the Total Eclipse, a dark imperial schwarz-ish sort of thing that is amazingly rich and complex. Pearl Street Brewery? Check - the Downtown Brown, Pearl Street's flagship, was the beer of the day Tuesday. Red Eye Brewing Co. a brewpub in Wausau? Check - the Scarlet 7, a Belgian ale brewed with caramelized figs, was on-tap. The only breweries not available were The Great Dane (if you want The Dane, it's around the corner!) and Stonefly (we were told by staff that Stonefly doesn't brew enough to spare a keg for this event; damn you Jacob! You're going to make drive all the way to Milwaukee go on that Mustache Ride to heaven.).

Some of the breweries not currently on tap will be coming on tap later (though not the aforementioned Stone Fly or Dane) and many of the breweries are available in bottles. For instance, The Northwoods BrewPub from Eau Claire. Three beers from this brewpub are available in bottle: The Floppin' Crappie ale, the Prickly Pike Pilsner, and the award-winning Lil' Bandit Brown Ale. Who can resist a beer named "Floppin' Crappie"?! Matt ordered the Lil' Bandit. Amazingly, the Floppin' Crappie was voted Best Beer at the Sturgis Brewfest in 2004. These bikers must be immune to headaches, because after one of these bad boys, my head is killin' me. Another hint: don't bother with the glass with this one. Just drink it straight from the bottle. There was no head, it's not particularly pretty (just a hazy orangish-bronzish sort of thing) and it was way thin. The website mentions caramel and honey, and to the extent it has a flavor, that's probably as good as anything. I won't even go into the Lil' Bandit - the fact that the Lil Bandit won an award (a silver!) at the Great American Beer Fest, says more about the Beer Fest than the beer.

The reason I bring this up is because it triggered a conversation between me and the Beer Talk guys about what the point of this beer in a bottle might be? Matt and Jon suggested it was simply to sell beer. But any fermented malt beverage in a bottle and get it on a shelf and someone will buy it. Heck, someone might even like it. But, Northwoods certainly doesn't seem to be aiming for any sort of quality or artistic merit. I suppose that's a fine enough reason - Americans, Wisconsin-ites, drink a lot beer that doesn't really aim for any quality or artistic merit. Take, for example, Miller or Budweiser or Busch Light or Keystone Ice.

But the weirder thing is that this is from a brewpub. Why is it in a bottle? Is there really enough demand for this beer (and the brown and the pils) to bottle it?! If so, who is buying it? Eau Claire is rich with bottled beer options - Rush River, Leinie's, Black River Falls, Viking, and now Surly, and countless others? Who, other than those who like the name "Floppin' Crappie", are buying a twelve-pack of this? Even to go fishing. For crappie. At the brewpub at least you have the "novelty" of being straight from the source.

I can understand the whole "Northwoods" thing. Hunting, fishing, snowmobiling; or rather huntin', fishin', snowmobilin', drinkin', abusin' tourists. I get that. Setting up a brewpub is a great way to corral that culture into an easy money-machine. Minocqua Brewing Co. does a great job of this, and their beers are great. Shipwrecked, in Door County, while another one that inexplicably bottles, is fine. But leave this stuff at the brewpub; there is no need to take home a bottle of it. Some free advice to anyone traveling to the Northwoods - it never tastes as good here as it does there.

And I don't mean to be mean to Northwoods, specifically, I just happened to be drinking a Northwoods Floppin' Crappie. My point is that there are very few brewpubs where it's necessary to get beer to go. Growlers are fine, but, really, isn't the point of a brewpub to be neighborhood hangout? Even some place like Grumpy Troll or Delafield or Riverside or Titletown. Their beers are good, heck, some of them are great, but so are their restaurants. Unless there is some terrific demand, it seems to me that the beer serves its purpose far better at the pub than on a shelf.

I don't know. Maybe I'm hypocritical. I don't have a problem with Ale Asylum. They're a bottling brewpub. And how do you differentiate Northwoods from something, like, say, Bear Republic in California or Goose Island in Chicago where they started as brewpubs and became bottling breweries? I don't know, maybe I'll buy another Floppin' Crappie and do a side-by-side comparison with the Hop Rod Rye.


  1. RE: Biker beer.
    I have been doing an informal sociological study of the beer drinking habits of the Harley crowd for several years. It is a fascinating subculture that is dominated by the apparently overwhelming need to conform to some sort of poseur image of being a "bad boy". I have never seen a more overtly branded crowd. The official uniform consists of a black tee-shirt advertising a Harley dealership, a bunch of in-your-face patriotic tattoos, blue jeans, biker boots and the obligatory black leather jacket and baseball cap with sunglasses perched on the bill. All very James Dean like. Oh, and a can of Bud Light.

    I was sitting in a rural Iowa county bar last fall when a ride of about 70 Harleys came in. This place has 2 Lake Louie beers and Guinness on tap along with the usual selection of domestic canned stuff. I happened to be sitting across the bar from the tap line when the crowd hit so I had a vantage spot to see just what they were drinking. A couple of guys ordered cans of Miller Lite and one adventurous woman ordered a bottle of Spotted Cow. Everyone else ordered canned Bud, overwhelmingly Bud Light. Nobody at all ordered a tap beer. This was not a crowd that had any interest in beer as anything other than a direct path to a buzz.

    So the fact that they liked Floppin' Crappie does surprise me, 'cause it ain't from St. Louis. The fact that they liked a poor beer does not surprise me as there is no good beer culture in the Harley rider crowd. I suspect that one guy liked the name and bought and held up a bottle and the rest of Sturgis followed him lemming-like over the cliff with their flapping black tee-shirts fluttering like so much handlebar fringe on the way to the headache on the bottom.

  2. There's an Iowa County bar with Lake Louie in bottles?!

  3. Not only in bottles, but on tap. Cream Ale and Premium are on tap and IPA, porter and Scotch ale are in bottles. And...the world's finest cheeseburger to go with it.

    It is called the Pleasant Ridge Store and is on the corner of Z and ZZ on the NE corner of Governor Dodge park near Dodgeville. It is a fine establishment and well worth a field trip.

  4. Interesting. I know where you are talking about, but I've never been in there. I'm in Dodgeville frequently, I'll have to check it out.

  5. Honestly, I've had a lot of brown ale's in my day, and the lil' bandit was easily toward the bottom of the list. I can't believe it won a GABF award. That Calumet Eclipse, on the other hand, was quite good.

  6. Maybe the people of Eau Claire just want something they can be proud of and call their own. They may have Rush River and New Glarus etc. in Eau Claire, but EAU CLAIRE has Northwoods Brewery. Many people in Madison still take enormous amounts of pride in all things Great Dane. Not to say that the Great Dane should be compared to Northwoods. The Great Dane does some great stuff, but amongst the competition of beer available from and around Madison, the Dane's Local could often be the best thing going for them.

    As for bottling and winning awards though, I have no clue. I also have no clue how they got the brown ale to taste like those fruit snacks.

  7. Having lived in Eau Claire and tasted nearly all the offerings from Northwoods at the time...I'm amazed at how they can get such a variety of beers to all taste the same.

    Porter, stout, brown ale...they all taste the same. Flappy Crappy is the standard for all the lighter beers.

    They did have good brewpub grub for a while, but then went into partnership with the Norskie Nook and the restaurant is now known for its Scandinavian Supper Club feel and its pies (not exactly what beer drinkers are looking for). The bar does still have some 'bar' food, but it's nothing extrordinary - which also describes the service I've had from the bar staff everytime I've been there.
    So Jeff, what do they have, or are planning to have from the Angry Minnow (hayward)??

  8. I've tried northwoods brewpub twice. One feature that is nice is you can pull up on the lake and get a beer. I guess if I'm going to have a flavorless beer, i'd rather have it be from a local guy than bud light.

    As a homebrewer, I don't know how to make beer that lacks that much flavor, without a large amount of sugar, rice, corn, or dilution.

  9. Hey Ron, I'm not sure you've been to Northwoods Brewpub in Eau Claire. The closest thing to a lake nearby is the run-off pond behind the building - it looks nice but is not a lake.

    Minocqua brewing is on a lake - and quite good beer as well.



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